Bullshit Jobs: A Theory


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(Answer: If 1 percent of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.)

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If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how he or she could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorized stratum of the universally reviled unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working three- to four-hour days.

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someone took several hundred ads in London Underground cars and replaced them with a series of guerrilla posters consisting of quotes from the original essay.

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neoliberal (“free market”) ideology that had dominated the world since the days of Thatcher and Reagan was really the opposite of what it claimed to be; it was really a political project dressed up as an economic one.

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The main political reaction to our awareness that half the time we are engaged in utterly meaningless or even counterproductive activities—usually under the orders of a person we dislike—is to rankle with resentment over the fact there might be others out there who are not in the same trap. As a result, hatred, resentment, and suspicion have become the glue that holds society together. This is a disastrous state of affairs. I wish it to end.

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Corporate lobbyists and financial consultants certainly do seem responsible for a disproportionately large share of the harm done in the world (at least, harm carried out as part of one’s professional duties). Perhaps they really do have to force themselves to believe in what they do.

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Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight)

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We could easily become societies of leisure and institute a twenty-hour workweek. Maybe even a fifteen-hour week. Instead, we find ourselves, as a society, condemned to spending most of our time at work, performing tasks that we feel make no difference in the world whatsoever.

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more than 110,000 words, which I duly color coded. The results might not be adequate for most forms of statistical analysis, but I have found them an extraordinarily rich source for qualitative analysis, especially since in many cases I’ve been able to ask follow-up questions and, in some, to engage in long conversations with informants. Some of the key concepts I’ll be developing in the book were first suggested in or inspired by such conversations—so, in a way, the book can be seen as a collaborative project. This is particularly true of the following typology, which grew directly from these conversations and which I like to see less as my own creation and more as the product of an ongoing dialogue.3

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Countries need armies only because other countries have armies.12 If no one had an army, armies would not be needed. But the same can be said of most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, and corporate lawyers.

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But still, those in charge of public relations, “strategic communications,” and the like at many elite universities in the UK have sent me testimonies making it clear that they do indeed feel their jobs are largely pointless.

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Supply has far outpaced demand in most industries, so now it is demand that is manufactured.

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Adbusters, produced entirely by workers in the industry who resent what they are made to do for a living and wish to use the powers they’ve acquired in advertising for good instead of evil

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instance, by designing flashy “subvertising” that attacks consumer culture as a whole.

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Where honest illusions add joy into the world, dishonest ones are intentionally aimed toward convincing people their worlds are a tawdry and miserable sort of place.

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Many large corporations, for instance, maintain their own in-house magazines or even television channels, the ostensible purpose of which is to keep employees up to date on interesting news and developments, but which, in fact, exist for almost no reason other than to allow executives to experience that warm and pleasant feeling that comes when you see a favorable story about you in the media, or to know what it’s like to be interviewed by people who look and act exactly like reporters but never ask questions you wouldn’t want them to ask.

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Tania: In organizations with structured job classifications and position descriptions, there has to be an established and classified job to which you can recruit someone. (This is a whole professional universe of BS jobs and boondogglery unto itself. It’s similar to the world of people who write grant proposals or contract bids.)

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Workplaces are fascist. They’re cults designed to eat your life; bosses hoard your minutes jealously like dragons hoard gold. —Nouri

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A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.

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Freedom is our ability to make things up just for the sake of being able to do so.

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most people who have ever existed have assumed that normal human work patterns take the form of periodic intense bursts of energy, followed by relaxation, followed by slowly picking up again toward another intense bout.

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One might say that men will always take for themselves the kind of jobs one can tell stories about afterward, and try to assign women the kind you tell stories during.

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Idleness is theft. This is important to underline because the idea that one person’s time can belong to someone else is actually quite peculiar. Most human societies that have ever existed would never have conceived of such a thing.

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The English historian E. P. Thompson, who wrote a magnificent 1967 essay on the origins of the modern time sense called “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,”

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By the fourteenth century, most European towns had created clock towers—usually funded and encouraged by the local merchant guild. It was these same merchants who developed the habit of placing human skulls on their desks as memento mori, to remind themselves that they should make good use of their time because each chime of the clock brought them one hour closer to death.

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Once time was money, it became possible to speak of “spending time,” rather than just “passing” it—also of wasting time, killing time, saving time, losing time, racing against time, and so forth. Puritan, Methodist, and evangelical preachers soon began instructing their flocks about the “husbandry of time,” proposing that the careful budgeting of time was the essence of morality. Factories began employing time clocks; workers came to be expected to punch the clock upon entering and leaving; charity schools designed to teach the poor discipline and punctuality gave way to public school systems where students of all social classes were made to get up and march from room to room each hour at the sound of a bell, an arrangement self-consciously designed to train children for future lives of paid factory labor.

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the very act of demanding “free time,” however understandable under the circumstances, had the effect of subtly reinforcing the idea that when a worker was “on the clock,” his time truly did belong to the person who had bought it—a concept that would have seemed perverse and outrageous to their great-grandparents, as, indeed, to most people who have ever lived.

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The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smallest details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to higher-ups, public or private. Either way, dissent or disobedience are punished. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing. And so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern workplace. —Bob Black, “The Abolition of Work”

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much of our sense of being a self, a being discrete from its surrounding environment, comes from the joyful realization that we can have predictable effects on that environment. This is true for infants and remains true throughout life. To take away that joy entirely is to squash a human like a bug.

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This is not to say, however, that the soul has no means for resistance. It might be well to conclude this chapter by taking note of the resulting spiritual warfare, and document some of the ways workers keep themselves sane by involving themselves in other projects. Call it, if you like, guerrilla purpose.

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But even now, I still must empty my mind for work. I listen to Sigur Rós—“Varðeldur,” which my new friend sent me. Then I go into a sort of meditative trance. When the song’s done, my mind’s empty, and I can run fairly nimbly through work.

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Young people in Europe and North America in particular, but increasingly throughout the world, are being psychologically prepared for useless jobs, trained in how to pretend to work, and then by various means shepherded into jobs that almost nobody really believes serve any meaningful purpose.20

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FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate). But back in 1992, Robert Taylor, a library scientist, suggested it would be more useful to define it as information work.

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US Labor Secretary Robert Reich, spoke of the rise of a new tech-savvy middle class of “symbolic analysts” who threatened to gain all the benefits of growth and leave the old-fashioned laboring classes languishing in poverty; others spoke of “knowledge workers” and “information society”; some Marxists even became convinced that new forms of what they called “immaterial labor”

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leading to prophecies of the eventual rebellion of the digital proletariat.

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In a way, one could argue that the whole financial sector is a scam of sorts, since it represents itself as largely about directing investments toward profitable opportunities in commerce and industry, when, in fact, it does very little of that. The overwhelming bulk of its profits comes from colluding with government to create, and then to trade and manipulate, various forms of debt.

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All I am really arguing in this book is that just as much of what the financial sector does is basically smoke and mirrors, so are most of the information-sector jobs that accompanied its rise as well.

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Or that the banking system is run by lizards.

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Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The Fall of the Faculty, about the administrative take-over of American universities,

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Ginsberg argues, university administrators have effectively staged a coup. They wrested control of the university from the faculty and oriented the institution itself toward entirely different purposes. It is now commonplace for major universities to put out “strategic vision documents” that barely mention scholarship or teaching but go on at length about “the student experience,” “research excellence” (getting grants), collaboration with business or government, and so forth.

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The moral of the story is that when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible.

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Of course, this is basically what the entire FIRE sector does: it creates money (by making loans) and then moves it around in often extremely complicated ways, extracting another small cut with every transaction.

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Three years they’ve been at this, the internal intranet Facebook page is just full of HR people saying something cheesy about the company and then other HR people saying “Great post! I really agree with this.” How they can stand this, I have no idea. It’s a monument to the total lack of cohesiveness in banking.

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So once again, we have the same combination of fraud, pretense (no one was allowed to talk about the shady companies in the Cayman Islands), a system designed not to be understood, which was then pushed off on managers who had no idea what was going on below them, largely because it made no sense. It was all just a meaningless ritual. What’s entirely unclear is whether anyone on top of the food chain—the data crunchers, the just-passing-through executives, even the higher-ups who chose them—actually knew how pointless it all was.

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Elephant Tea factory outside Marseille, France, currently occupied by its employees.

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As a general principle, I would propose the following: in any political-economic system based on appropriation and distribution of goods, rather than on actually making, moving, or maintaining them, and therefore, where a substantial portion of the population is engaged in funneling resources up and down the system, that portion of the population will tend to organize itself into an elaborately ranked hierarchy of multiple tiers (at least three, and sometimes ten, twelve, or even more). As a corollary, I would add that within those hierarchies, the line between retainers and subordinates will often become blurred, since obeisance to superiors is often a key part of the job description. Most of the important players are lords and vassals at the same time.

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—anonymous British academic29

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But everywhere, managerial feudalism ensures that thousands of hours of creative effort will literally come to nothing. Take the domain of scientific research, or higher education once again. If a grant agency funds only 10 percent of all applications, that means that 90 percent of the work that went into preparing applications was just as pointless as the work that went into making the promo video for Apollonia’s doomed reality TV show Too Fat to Fuck.

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one recent study determined that European universities spend roughly 1.4 billion euros a year on failed grant applications33—money that, obviously, might otherwise have been available to fund research.

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have to spend so much of their time vying with one another to convince potential donors they already know what they are going to discover.34 Finally,

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It is increasingly a system of rent extraction where the internal logic—the system’s “laws of motion,” as the Marxists like to say—are profoundly different from capitalism, since economic and political imperatives have come to largely merge. In many ways, it resembles classic medieval feudalism, displaying the same tendency to create endless hierarchies of lords, vassals, and retainers. In other ways—notably in its managerialist ethos—it is profoundly different. And the whole apparatus, rather than replacing old-fashioned industrial capitalism, is instead superimposed on top of it, blending together in a thousand points in a thousand different ways. Hardly surprising, then, that the situation seems so confusing that even those directly in the middle don’t really know quite what to make of it.

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How vain the opinion is of some certain people of the East Indies, who think that apes and baboons, which are with them in great numbers, are imbued with understanding, and that they can speak but will not, for fear they should be imployed and set to work. —Antoine Le Grand, c. 1675

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Many economic concepts trace back directly to religious ideas. As a result, arguments about value always have something of a theological tinge.

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rise of impersonal markets across Eurasia roughly around 600 BC. The invention of coinage made it possible to create markets where strangers could interact with one another only with an eye to material advantage; wherever these cash markets appeared, whether in China, India, or the Mediterranean world, they were quickly followed by the birth of universal religions that in every case preached that material things were not important,

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In both the story of the Garden of Eden and in the myth of Prometheus, the fact that humans have to work is seen as their punishment for having defied a divine Creator, but at the same time, in both, work itself, which gives humans the ability to produce food, clothing, cities, and ultimately our own material universe, is presented as a more modest instantiation of the divine power of Creation itself. We are, as the existentialists liked to put it, condemned to be free, forced to wield the divine power of creation against our will, since most of us would really rather be naming the animals in Eden, dining on nectar and ambrosia at feasts on Mount Olympus, or watching cooked geese fly into our waiting gullets in the Land of Cockaygne, than having to cover ourselves with cuts and calluses to coax sustenance from the soil.

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After all, most work can’t be said to “create” anything; most of it is a matter of maintaining and rearranging things.23 Consider a coffee cup. We “produce” it once. We wash it a thousand times.

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This is why I would insist our concept of “production,” and our assumption that work is defined by its “productivity,” is essentially theological. The Judeo-Christian God created the universe out of nothing. (This in itself is slightly unusual: most Gods work with existing materials.) His latter-day worshippers, and their descendants, have come to think of themselves as cursed to imitate God in this regard. The sleight of hand involved, the way that most human labor, which cannot in any sense be considered “production,” is thus made to disappear, is largely effected through gender. In the familiar lines from the story of the Fall, from the book of Genesis, God condemns men to till the soil (“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food”) and women to bear children in similarly unhappy circumstances (“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children”.)24 Male “productive” labor is thus being framed here as the equivalent of childbirth, which, from a male point of view (not so much from a female one, but it is very much a male point of view being presented here), can seem about as close to pure creation ex nihilio—the infant appearing fully formed apparently out of nowhere—that human beings can perform.

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as in so many patriarchal social orders, men like to conceive of themselves as doing socially, or culturally, what they like to think of women as doing naturally. “Production” is thus simultaneously a variation on a male fantasy of childbirth, and of the action of a male Creator God who similarly created the entire universe through the sheer power of his mind and words, just as men see themselves as creating the world from their minds and brawn, and see that as the essence of “work,” leaving to women most of the actual labor of tidying and maintaining things to make this illusion possible.

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Saint Augustine’s argument that we are cursed with infinite desires in a finite world and thus naturally in a situation of competition with one another—which reappears in secular form in the seventeenth century in Thomas Hobbes—has become the basis for the assumption that rational human action is largely a matter of “economizing,” the optimal allocation of scarce resources by rational actors in a competitive world.

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A man perfects himself by working . . . Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like helldogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor day-worker, as of every man; but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man. The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not purifying fire, wherein all poison is burnt up?

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Certainly a detail left out of every cowboy movie I ever saw! (The notable exception being The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which does indeed begin with a scene where John Huston, as a miner, explains the labor theory of value to Humphrey Bogart.)42

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Andrew Carnegie, a “Gospel of Wealth”:

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The fledgling corporate giants, their bankers, and their political allies objected to producerist moral claims and, starting in the 1890s, reached out with a new ideology that claimed, to the contrary, that capital, not labor, creates wealth and prosperity. Powerful coalitions of corporate interests made concerted efforts to transform the message of schools, universities, churches, and civic groups, claiming that “business had solved the fundamental ethical and political problems of industrial society.”

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This was a monumental shift in popular consciousness. What made it possible? It seems to me that the main reason lies in a flaw in the original labor theory of value itself. This was its focus on “production”—a concept which, as earlier noted, is basically theological, and bears in it a profound patriarchal bias.

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The initial instinct of most early factory owners was not to employ men in the mills at all, but women and children: the latter were, after all, considered more tractable, and women especially, more inured to monotonous, repetitive work. The results were often brutal and horrific.

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Underlings have to constantly monitor what the boss is thinking; the boss doesn’t have to care. That, in turn, is one reason, I believe, why psychological studies regularly find that people of working-class background are more accurate at reading other people’s feelings, and more empathetic and caring, than those of middle-class, let alone wealthy, backgrounds.47

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Even if we don’t like what the world looks like, the fact remains that the conscious aim of most of our actions, productive or otherwise, is to do well by others; often, very specific others. Our actions are caught up in relations of caring. But most caring relations require we leave the world more or less as we found it. In the same way that teenage idealists regularly abandon their dreams of creating a better world and come to accept the compromises of adult life at precisely the moment they marry and have children, caring for others, especially over the long term, requires maintaining a world that’s relatively predictable as the grounds on which caring can take place. One cannot save to ensure a college education for one’s children unless one is sure in twenty years there will still be colleges—or for that matter, money. And that, in turn, means that love for others—people, animals, landscapes—regularly requires the maintenance of institutional structures one might otherwise despise.

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No longer were we to think of ourselves as expressing our being through what we produced, but rather, through what we consumed: what sorts of clothes we wear, music we listen to, sports teams we follow.

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1. Most people’s sense of dignity and self-worth is caught up in working for a living. 2. Most people hate their jobs.

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How to reconcile these two observations? One way might be to return to the arguments I made in chapter 3 and to acknowledge that human beings essentially are a set of purposes, so that without any sense of purpose, we would barely be said to exist at all.

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every day we wake up and collectively make a world together; but which one of us, left to our own devices, would ever decide they wanted to make a world like this one?”—

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While the pace at which scientific revolutions and technological breakthroughs occur has slowed considerably since the heady pace the world came to be familiar with from roughly 1750 to 1950, improvements in robotics continue, largely because they are a matter of improved application of existing technological knowledge.

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There has been a lot of scare literature of late about the perils of mechanization. Most of it follows along the lines that Kurt Vonnegut had already developed in his very first novel, Player Piano, in 1952:

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Stanislaw Lem, whose space voyager Ijon Tichy describes a visit to a planet inhabited by a species to which the author gives the rather unsubtle name of Phools.

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Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up.

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Many, however, wrote books about what conditions would create the best people—that is, how should society be best arranged to produce the sort of human beings one would like to have around, as friends, lovers, neighbors, relatives, or fellow citizens? This is the kind of question that concerned Aristotle, Confucius, and Ibn Khaldun, and in the final analysis it’s still the only really important one. Human life is a process by which we, as humans, create one another; even the most extreme individualists only become individuals through the care and support of their fellows; and “the economy” is ultimately just the way we provide ourselves with the necessary material provisions with which to do so.

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am suspicious of the very idea of policy. Policy implies the existence of an elite group—government officials, typically—that gets to decide on something (“a policy”) that they then arrange to be imposed on everybody else. There’s a little mental trick we often play on ourselves when discussing such matters. We say, for instance, “What are we going to do about the problem of X?” as if “we” were society as a whole, somehow acting on ourselves, but, in fact, unless we happen to be part of that roughly 3 percent to 5 percent of the population whose views actually do affect policy makers, this is all a game of make-believe; we are identifying with our rulers when, in fact, we’re the ones being ruled.

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I’m personally an anarchist, which means that, not only do I look forward to a day sometime in the future when governments, corporations, and the rest will be looked at as historical curiosities in the same way as we now look at the Spanish Inquisition or nomadic invasions, but I prefer solutions to immediate problems that do not give more power to governments or corporations, but rather, give people the means to manage their own affairs.

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It follows that when faced with a social problem my impulse is not to imagine myself in charge, and ponder what sort of solutions I would then impose, but to look for a movement already out there, already trying to address the problem and create its own solutions.

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I’ve only been able to identify one solution currently being promoted by social movements, that would reduce rather than increase the size and intrusiveness of government. That’s Universal Basic Income.

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got involved in Wages for Housework because I felt that my mother needed it. She was trapped in a bad marriage, and she would have left my dad a lot earlier if she’d had her own money. That’s something really important for anyone in an abusive or even just boring relationship: to be able to get out of it without being financially impacted.

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feminist critics had begun pointing out was that same system also defined what was to be considered “real” labor—the kind that could be reduced to “time” and could thus be bought and sold—and what wasn’t. Most women’s labor was placed in the latter category, despite the fact that without it, the very machine that stamped it as “not really work” would grind to a halt immediately. Wages for Housework was essentially an attempt to call capitalism’s bluff, to say, “Most work, even factory work, is done for a variety of motives; but if you want to insist that work is only valuable as a marketable commodity, then at least you can be consistent about the matter!” If women were to be compensated in the same way as men then a huge proportion of the world’s wealth would instantly have to be handed over to them; and wealth, of course, is power.

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sees it as a way of expanding the zone of unconditionality. This latter is the kind that I would myself be able to get behind. I do this despite my own politics, which is quite explicitly antistatist: as an anarchist, I look forward to seeing states dismantled entirely, and in the meantime, have no interest in policies that will give states more power than they have already.